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Hospital CEO leads through vulnerability and kindness — and it works

Vulnerability and kindness aren’t necessarily top of mind traits, traditionally, for leaders of $1.57 billion organizations. One CEO argues they should be.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 12:00 p.m. May 17, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Tampa General Hospital has more than 8,000 employees.
Tampa General Hospital has more than 8,000 employees.
Courtesy photo
  • Leadership
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The leadership awards and accolades John Couris has received in six years as president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital are nearly as long as the bridge people take to get to the 1,040-bed facility on Davis Island. 

In just the past few months the list includes being named to Florida Politics’ list of The Top Influencers in Florida Health Care Politics and the Great Leaders in Healthcare list from Becker’s Hospital Review. It’s the second year in a row he made Becker’s list. Other recent pieces of recognition include: Modern Healthcare’s 2022 Top 25 Innovators list; the Tampa Bay Chamber H.L. Culbreath Jr. Profile in Leadership Award in 2021; and Florida Trend’s Florida 500 list of most influential business leaders statewide. And, while not an award, in August 2020 Gov. Ron DeSantis asked Couris to join the task force to reopen Floridas’ economy amid the pandemic — high-stakes recognition of his leadership capabilities.  

Yet while awards generate social media likes and public attaboys, Couris would rather talk about something far less sizzling yet something he believes is far more essential to being a better leader: process. 

Tampa General Hospital President and CEO John Couris
Courtesy photo

Like most, if not all, good leaders, Couris acknowledges, in public statements and in an interview, that the recognition stems primarily from having an A+ team across TGH. And more than awards, what really gets him going is talking about leadership. Couris, 55, talks about leadership processes and theories with the precision of a surgeon and the passion of a nurse. 

“Building operations and culture is my passion,” Couris says. “I love operations. I really love figuring out how businesses run. I spend an inordinate amount of time on our culture and our people.”

Couris isn’t just talking about time at work, though he does plenty of that. In late 2021 he also completed a dissertation on leadership for a doctor of business administration degree at USF. The 65-page paper, which he estimates he worked on over 19 months, mostly during the pandemic, was entitled “Driving Health Care Results with Authenticity, Kindness and Vulnerability: A New Model of Authentic Leadership.”

Couris wrote about the experience of studying, writing and defending his dissertation — a three-year process — in an October 2021 post on the Becker’s Hospital Review website.

“For me, striving to be an authentic leader — one who deploys kindness, transparency and vulnerability — as a practice to develop my team and produce the best possible results has been a passion of mine throughout my career,” Couris writes. “Transparently, it did take me some time to get to this point.”

“I was fortunate to have advanced to leadership positions early on in my career, and while I was always results-oriented, I was not always mindful of the process of how to get there,” he adds. “Very simply, I was young, immature and have come a long way since then. I have learned how important it is to achieve results and bring your teams along throughout the process in an authentic way.”

Thoughtful risks

Couris was born and raised in Boston. A graduate of Boston College with a degree in psychology, his first job was with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He held multiple roles there from 1990-2000, from what he called a “utility infielder” type doing a lot of things to administrator.

He later moved to Florida and worked for BayCare Health System in Clearwater until being named CEO of Jupiter Medical Center. He oversaw that 327-bed nonprofit hospital until the TGH job in 2017. Also a nonprofit hospital, TGH, under Couris, reported $1.57 billion in revenue in 2020, up 30.83% from $1.2 billion in 2016, according to public tax filings. It has 8,135 employees.     

Couris, says TGH board chair Phil Dingle in a statement touting one of the CEOs most recent awards, “is advancing and inspiring the next generation of medicine — a team conducting advanced research that saves lives, adapts to changes in health care and cares for the sickest patients with the most complex conditions.” 

Couris says his approach to leadership was partially shaped by two mentors when he worked in Boston. Two significant takeaways? Don’t be afraid to take a contrarian approach in strategy and operations and, if things go south, try to fail fast. “They told me the world is filled with mediocre people. We don’t need one more medicare person,’” Couris says. “‘We need people willing to take calculated risks and be thoughtful disruptors.’”

That devotion to disruption shows up multiple times in Couris’ dissertation. 

For example, he notes the traditional definition of authentic leadership consists of four dimensions: relational transparency, self-awareness, balanced processing and internalized moral perspective. But Couris adds kindness and vulnerability to that equation — something not always at the top of a hard-charging CEO’s must-do lit. 

Then, through surveys and other interactions, and in using 44 TGH managers in a two-test group, Couris tests his hypotheses: Can an authentic leader who prioritizes kindness and vulnerability drive better outcomes? 

The short answer? Yes. 

“I have found two authentic leadership behaviors —vulnerability and kindness — to be critical to driving results,” Couris writes. 

Culture and connection 

Kindness is a broad term, obviously. Couris, in his dissertation, defines “kindness in leadership as leaders meeting people where they are — both emotionally and intellectually — while also meeting the needs of their employees and organization. The hallmark of an operationally healthy and effective organization is that team members feel supported and cared for, and when that happens, they can do their best work.” 

Vulnerability, too, can be broad. Couris says vulnerability “takes root when leaders allow their followers to see them for who they are — warts and all. They come to recognize their leader, and thus, the organization, as taking a ‘what you see is what you get’ approach.”

Couris emphasizes that vulnerability didn’t come naturally to him — it was a learned behavior.

“As A Boston native, I tended to be aggressive, extremely ambitious and unemotional,” he wrote in an article in the August 2020 issue of the Journal of Healthcare Management titled “Vulnerability: the Secret to Authentic Leadership Through the Pandemic.” 

“At age 32, at BayCare Health System in Florida, I was driven by results and success, not culture or connection. I didn't equate vulnerability or authenticity with strength or confidence.”

One way Couris practices vulnerability today at TGH is through what he calls truth to power — or encouraging his team to question him often on decisions and strategy. “I get challenged by my team all the time,” he says. “I expect it.”

Couris cites a recent example where a vice president told him after a meeting that Couris was making the wrong decision about a vendor for a project. Couris says he listened to the executive and switched the decision. “It turned out he was right, I was wrong,” Couris says, and he told the executive just that. 

Another key element of leadership vulnerability at TGH, says Couris, is not just being OK with mistakes, but embracing them. “Without the mistakes, you don’t get disruption and innovation,” he says. “We look at mistakes as gifts. We say we celebrate mistakes. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn.”



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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